Science - Danger of 'trashing' education

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Science and its teaching in new curricululm come under fire from eminent academic

The latest heavyweight intervention expressing "deep misgivings" about the new curriculum has come from one of the most eminent members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Geoffrey Boulton, who led last year's highly critical report of the draft guidance on science and maths in A Curriculum for Excellence, told The TESS that Scotland was in danger of "trashing education" in the same way the planet and the economy have been "trashed".

The RSE report was highly influential in the Scottish Government's decision last June to order substantial changes to the new science outcomes.

Professor Boulton, who is general secretary of the RSE, an educational charity made up of Scotland's leading academics, was speaking after an address to a conference in Edinburgh on the theme of "young children as scientists". He said: "The top line objectives of the new curriculum are fine, but the question is how we get there and that's where we begin to run into difficulties, some practical and some conceptual."

The Edinburgh University professor of geology and mineralogy, who is also a member of the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, accepted that ACfE should give teachers the freedom to use their professional creativity instead of constraining them. After decades of prescription, however, teachers could not just be cut adrift, he argued.

"Support structures need to be put in place and there has to be access to CPD," he said. Professor Boulton welcomed the pound;2.1 million being given to the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre over three years to deliver courses demonstrating interactive approaches to science teaching. But he added: "If you do the arithmetic, in terms of the number of teachers, it's tiny."

He questioned the intellectual basis for the science content: "You need the landscape of learning to be coherent otherwise you end up with snippets here and there, boulders of knowledge, but you never see the larger landscape."

Under ACfE, the roles of chemistry, biology and physics were in danger of being compromised and "dramatically misunderstood", he warned.

Professor Boulton also expressed concern at the trend towards regarding teachers as supporters of student learning, rather than the leaders. "This under-represents the power of the teacher who, when he or she has a deep understanding, has the capacity to reveal things to their students. The vital thing is that the teacher is able to bring knowledge and understanding that go beyond the student's. That is crucial."

Other delegates at the conference argued that teachers, particularly pre- secondary, did not need a deep knowledge of science. Primary and nursery teachers who expressed concern about their lack of expertise were advised to explore and learn with their pupils.

"You don't need to know the science and all the answers, but you do need to know how to listen and work with children," summed up Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, host of the annual Children in Europe conference.

BBC Scotland senior meteorologist Heather Reid suggested it would be useful for teachers to be able to tap into a bank of experts.

A "yellow pages" of experts, such as the science centres, and businesses willing to work with schools, was already in the pipeline, said Joyce Henderson, team leader of science, social studies and technology at Learning and Teaching Scotland. Someone would be seconded two days a week to create the "one-stop shop", she said.

Email access to experts could also help teachers, said Martin Hendry, director of learning and teaching at the Glasgow University's department of physics and astronomy.

As a science outreach enthusiast, he had run projects for P7 pupils in five local authorities. The topics, which included "Extra-terrestrial life: is there anybody out there?" and "Did we really land on the Moon?", were introduced by academics but carried out by schools, with university scientists offering email support.

"Providing a helpline was easier to fit in than a dedicated visit," Dr Hendry said.


A blueprint for improving teaching and learning of science in Scotland's schools has been launched. The report contains the recommendation from Scotland's first Schools Science Summit, convened by Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop in the wake of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). It showed the performance of 10 and 14-year-olds languishing alongside Third World countries. The Scottish Government says it plans to improve the pupil experience in science education, engineering and technology by:

- increasing shared learning between industry, schools and academia;

- improving the status and image of science through a science careers advertising campaign;

- working with Skills Development Scotland to develop and promote careers advice in science and engineering;

- maximising the benefits of partnership with Scotland's science centres;

- increasing the use of Glow, the schools intranet, to share best practice in science learning;

- reviewing teachers' CPD opportunities in science and engineering;

- using ACfE framework to create a "seamless transition" in science education.

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